Casa do Lago brings brutality and softness in concrete to a lakeshore in Brazil
by Jerry ElengicalFeb 24, 2023
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Feb 28, 2023
Comunilife, a major player in New York’s supportive and affordable housing market, recently worked with US-based practice Alexander Gorlin Architects to deliver a community-oriented residential building in the city that integrates social services and art oriented spaces. Located in the Morrisania neighbourhood of The Bronx, one of the city's five major boroughs, the project has been christened El Borinquen Residence, taken from the indigenous name of Puerto Rico. This measure attempts to create links to Comunilife's main focus—that of aiding Latino communities—in the project’s branding.
Having opened to the public towards the end of 2022, the residential architectural venture adopts a simple C-shaped footprint perched on stilts along its road-facing edifice, accommodating 147 living units. Among these, 90 homes have been allocated as supportive housing units for youths leaving foster care or formerly homeless individuals in need of mental health care. The remaining units are devoted to low-income senior citizens and community residents whose incomes meet the eligibility requirements for admission to the complex, decided through a public lottery. Rising over Third Avenue and East 166th Street, the social housing project’s gridded yet playful, vibrantly coloured façade design emerged from Comunilife's desire for a building that was representative of Latino identities and culture in the city—a thought that the American architecture practice took to heart.
When talking of supportive housing schemes, there is one project that immediately comes to mind for those acquainted with the tradition of modern architecture, especially in its sub-genre of brutalism. Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille was a landmark, no less than a defining moment in the evolution of housing in the post-war era of the 20th century. Its internal planning and volumetric layering far ahead of its time, the structure took the Swiss-French architect’s Five points of architecture, scaled them monumentally, and expanded their scope in ways that had never been seen before. Cast in rough béton brut, a departure from convention at the time, the 18-storey tower, perched on massive tapering pilotis, set a precedent for what could be achieved in the arena of social housing, and continues to inspire many even today.
This influence is quite obvious in the case of El Borinquen Residence, even if its context and conceptual underpinnings diverge considerably from that of the Unite d'Habitation. From the pronounced exposed concrete façade grid to its recessed fenestrations painted in bright primary colours, the pair of buildings are kindred spirits, separated by generations in many respects, barring the many obvious differences between the two. Whereas Corbusier's innovation sought to relocate families displaced by the Second World War, Alexander Gorlin Architects have embarked on this venture to aid the neighbourhood’s Latino communities alongside other vulnerable residents in need of affordable accommodation. This distinction becomes more apparent on closer inspection of El Borinquen Residence's windows, which according to the architects, constitute an abstract quasi-minimalist composition comprising the colours of the flags of Latin American nations.
Both structures also rest on concrete architectural pilotis, however, Alexander Gorlin Architects' scheme is a fair bit more utilitarian in its design vocabulary, utilising simple rectangular members as part of its structural design as opposed to the more sculptural arched promenade beneath the Unite, framed by its far weightier and more sculptural supports. This alteration is in line with many of New York’s skyscrapers, which generally have recessed entryways and open colonnades along the edges of their ground floor. Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building is one of the most well-known exponents of this strategy, inspiring innumerable imitators that now line New York’s main thoroughfares. El Borinqun does not shy away from boldly displaying these modernist influences, but has also added its own contemporary architectural twist to them, as befitting of a structure that seeks to respond to its spatiotemporal urban milieu.
Another point of difference emerges from their respective massing and the distribution of volume. When completed, Unite d’Habitation was a mass housing block whose proportions were often likened to a cruise liner. Corbusier himself described it as a self-contained "vertical garden city." Rising 18 storeys, the building is also far more horizontally elongated in its footprint than the more meagre volume of El Borinquen, and it hosts more than twice the number of living units, amounting to a total of 337. By contrast, spiritual offspring is considerably slimmer and more vertically elongated, even though it only rises to a height of 10-storeys, with a more irregular C-shaped layout. The density of surrounding structures also plays a part in this, as El Borinquen has only one face open to the street by virtue of being boxed in by smaller housing blocks on all sides. Conversely the Unite d’Habitation is located on the fringes of the city, and is far more open on all sides to the verdant landscape it sits in.
Variations in the size and distribution of the façade grid also take hints from the Unite, although the scale of this variation is much smaller and more evident in the case of El Borinquen. The coloured metal panels on the building's exterior are an engaging sight of their own accord, inviting pedestrians to flock towards the building's street level colonnade which features a landscape designed stretch bordered by wavy monochrome pavement designs that make the ground plane come alive. Glazing wraps around the lobby which is home to an open gallery space that is built to host rotating exhibitions by Bronx artists, in addition to other community spaces.
One of the most striking features of El Borinquen’s interior design continues the colour scheme of the façade, embracing the tile work on the floors and ceilings of the elevator bank in the lobby. Taking form as a lively mural artwork that dresses the enclosing surfaces of this space, this graphic installation was realised by artists Aurelio del Muro and Marta Blair. In conceptualising and implementing it within the space, the duo was inspired by the poem Río Grande de Loiza, by revered Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. Bold colours and other elaborate murals also adorn the walls and floors in other sections of the building, cementing the structure as a sanctuary for Latin American identity and local culture.
Having opened to the public in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 21, 2022, El Borinquen Residence is one of the few fully affordable housing endeavours (as opposed to partially affordable and mixed market rate ones) that offers high quality living for disadvantaged citizens in an urban landscape with some of the highest living costs the world over. Melding inspiration from how art and culture have been pivotal to the upliftment of Latino communities in New York over the years—with the underlying ideas that have shaped some of the most commended modernist housing projects over the past century—El Borinquen Residence is not just a tribute to the identities that have shaped it, but also a monument to how creative expression is so vital to maintaining equity amid the diversity of New York’s cultural makeup.
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